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By Stacy M. Brown
Contributing Writer

(NNPA Newswire) — Blacks are seven-times more likely than whites to be wrongfully convicted of murder.

Further, Black people are three times more likely than white people to be wrongfully convicted of sexual assault.

This is all according to The Innocence Project, which recently shared the harsh reality of being Black behind bars and the survival mechanisms innocent people employ to overcome being wrongly convicted.

“From their very first interaction with the police, to being arrested, booked, charged, convicted, and sentenced, Black people are discriminated against and disproportionately criminalized at every stage of the criminal justice system,” according to the Innocence Project report, #BlackBehindBars: Sparking a conversation on the Black wrongful conviction experience in the U.S.

The report, which focuses on incarcerated individuals that have benefitted from the efforts of the Innocence Project, notes that to be a Black exoneree in America means:

• You are one of the 222 Blacks (out of 365-total exonerees of all races), proved innocent by DNA since 1989, when the first exoneration by DNA occurred. This includes the 84 Blacks on death row that were exonerated (from a total of 164 exonerees of all races)

• You spent an average of 10.7 years behind bars for a crime you didn’t commit vs. 7.4 years for White exonerees (approx. 25 percent longer, on average)

“How many people are convicted of crimes they did not commit?” asked Samuel R. Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, and the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations in a July 2015 opinion piece for the Washington Post, “ Last year, a study I co-authored on the issue was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It shows that 4.1 percent of defendants who are sentenced to death in the United States are later shown to be innocent: 1 in 25.”

“Death sentences are uniquely well-documented. We don’t know nearly enough about other kinds of criminal cases to estimate the rate of wrongful convictions for those,” said Gross. “The rate could be lower than for capital murders, or it could be higher. Of course, in a country with millions of criminal convictions a year and more than two million people behind bars, even one percent amounts to tens of thousands of tragic errors.”

“In West Virginia, where I was locked up, all of the guards were white. White inmates got the best jobs and were given a level of trust that Black inmates did not get,” said Kenneth Lawson, the co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project.

“The way prison is currently structured, I found myself forced to practice not trusting anyone in prison. I practiced this until it became automatic,” Lawson said.

“I was 21 years old when I was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison,” said exoneree Jabbar Collins.

“I spent the next 16 years of my life there, all while prosecutors hid crucial evidence, and yet, not one prosecutor who hid evidence was punished or disciplined. I ask you, how is this fair?” Collins said.

Sadly, “the time of false convictions isn’t over … wrongful convictions are one of the scourges of our criminal justice system,” Nora V. Demleitner, a Roy L. Steinheimer, Jr. Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, told NNPA Newswire.

“Yet, generally we’ll only find out about them for serious crimes with lengthy sentences. And, in those cases, the stakes are sufficiently high for outsiders to become interested and for attorneys to fight,” said Demleitner, who also serves as editor of the Federal Sentencing Reporter and the lead author of Sentencing Law and Policy.

Demleitner also sits on the board of the Prison Policy Initiative and the Collateral Consequences Resource Center.

“Even though prosecutors tend to argue that charges are based on the strength of the evidence rather than prior convictions, African-Americans may only come to the police’s attention as potential suspects because of a prior criminal record, however minor,” Demleitner said.

“So, the over-policing of minority neighborhoods that increases the chance for a police encounter likely also contributes to false convictions,” she said.

Dr. Shakti Butler, who consulted on Disney’s Academy Award-winning film, “Zootopia,” and has created widely used educational films and curricula addressing implicit bias and racial equity, told NNPA Newswire that the system continues to be alarmingly and increasingly unfair to African Americans.

“When I see data that speaks, yet again, to the gross inequities that impact Black People in this country my heart breaks,” Butler said.

“Isn’t it clear that data alone changes nothing. Data often validates and hardens perspectives that keep reproducing the status quo … We need action that dismantles systems of oppression and trauma. That action will only begin to take form once we address such uncomfortable questions and issues with vigorous courage, love and respect,” Butler said.

Black people in the United States have never been given a presumption of innocence in the criminal justice system, said Karen Thompson, the Innocence Project Senior Staff Attorney.

“Their entire relationship to justice is not a standard of not guilty but one of not guilty yet,” Thompsons said.

To view the report and the various experiences of those exonerated, click here.

Also, follow #BlackBehindBars on social media.

This article originally published in the July 15, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Stacy M. Brown
Contributing Writer

Editor’s Note: The NNPA is taking a closer look at the stigma of mental illness in the African American community. This is the first in a series.

(NNPA Newswire) — Historically, seeking psychotherapy has been difficult for African Americans, said Dr. Viola Drancoli, a licensed clinical psychologist who wrote a master thesis about the barriers to seeking mental health services in ethnic minority communities.

“It is not only a concept with European origin, but also a concept that does not fit the community-oriented, collective approach to healing and support that has been so helpful to this population,” Drancoli said.

“Instead of finding healing in coming together, the client is separated, often sitting in a one-on-one session with a professional. The idea of being focused on, analyzed, can be perceived as threatening,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health says poverty level affects mental health status and African Americans living below the poverty level, as compared to those over twice the poverty level, are three times more likely to report psychological distress.

Further, African Americans are 10 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic whites, and the death rate from suicide for African-American men was more than four times greater than for African-American women, in 2014.

A report from the U.S. Surgeon General found that from 1980 to 1995, the suicide rate among African Americans ages 10 to 14 increased 233 percent, compared to 120 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

Yet, experts said even as the conversation around mental health has grown significantly with celebrities and others in the spotlight sharing their stories, most African Americans still refrain from seeking help.

“Unfortunately, among African Americans it remains taboo to talk about, and one reason is the fear of being labeled as crazy,” said Arron Muller, a licensed social worker.

“The intense fear of being judged has been a huge deterrent,” Muller said.

“In the African-American community there is also an association that mental illness means weakness and the inability to handle your problems on your own or that anxiety or depressive symptoms should be addressed with praying and fasting,” he said.

Prayer and a relationship with God have their place in the full picture of health and wellness and a connection to God and leaning on a higher power does promote tremendous benefits for the brain and brain health, said Dr. Catherine Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist and board certified neuro-therapist in Chicago.

Jackson founded Dr. J’s Holistic Health and Wellness at DrCCJ.com.

“While having the strength to work on your own problems is a good characteristic to have, not recognizing when to seek help can be detrimental to overall health,” Jackson said.

“Turning to our pastors was needed in the past, but as concerns have grown, more resources are available,” she said, noting also that many African Americans eventually visit hospital emergency rooms with complaints that are in fact mental health issues.

“Some hospitals give referrals to mental health practitioners, but without proper education and information shared, follow through is unlikely,” Jackson said.

Educator and life coach Elaine Taylor-Klaus said there’s something else that happens in the African American community that should warrant consideration when discussing the stigma of mental illness.

“In all aspects of life, the African American community has had to appear better than the average person just to be seen as good enough,” Taylor-Klaus said.

“African-American families have long been conscious of a need to dress their kids a little nicer in public, to expect their kids to behave more respectfully in public, and to follow directions immediately,” Taylor-Klaus said.

“The implications for the adults when kids don’t behave has been a risk-factor — when an ‘uppity’ child acts out, an African American adult can get in serious, life-threatening trouble. It’s not reasonable — but it’s a reality of African-American life in the United States,” she said.

There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness and some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, according to Mental Health America, the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness.

Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal.

Mental health problems may be related to excessive stress due to a particular situation or series of events.

As with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, mental illnesses are often physical as well as emotional and psychological. According to Mental Health America, mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of:

• Confused thinking

• Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)

• Feelings of extreme highs and lows

• Excessive fears, worries and anxieties

• Social withdrawal

• Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits

• Strong feelings of anger

• Strange thoughts (delusions)

• Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)

• Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities

• Suicidal thoughts

• Numerous unexplained physical ailments

• Substance use

In Older Children and Pre-Adolescents:

• Substance use

• Inability to cope with problems and daily activities

• Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits

• Excessive complaints of physical ailments

• Changes in ability to manage responsibilities – at home and/or at school

• Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism

• Intense fear

• Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death

• Frequent outbursts of anger

In Younger Children:

• Changes in school performance

• Poor grades despite strong efforts

• Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits

• Excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)

• Hyperactivity

• Persistent nightmares

• Persistent disobedience or aggression

• Frequent temper tantrums

For detailed information about mental illness and where assistance is provided visit, www.nami.org; www.mentalhealthamerica.net; or www.minorityhealth.hhs.gov.

Part 2 in this series will tackle the growing number of suicides among young African Americans, an alarming trend that experts say is the result of poverty, racism, and post-traumatic stress syndrome both from military service and domestic and social problems.

This article originally published in the July 15, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Camille Goldmon
Contributing Writer

(Special from Facing South) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has withheld from the public dozens of climate-change related studies conducted by the department’s principal research agency, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

That’s the finding of a recent Politico investigation, which documented “a persistent pattern in which the Trump administration refused to draw attention to findings that show the potential dangers and consequences of climate change.” Though the ARS has reportedly completed at least 45 climate-related studies since Trump took office in 2017, only two have been publicized, Politico found. Both contained findings favorable to the meat industry, which in 2018 alone at the federal level spent over $4 million on lobbying and donated nearly twice as much to Republican candidates as Democratic ones. Reports that conflict with the administration’s agenda, such as those pointing to climate change as an agricultural emergency or to industrial agriculture as a high-emissions sector, have been relegated to the sidelines.

Several of the reports that the administration buried are particularly relevant to the agricultural industry in Southern states, which are especially vulnerable to the higher temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and more frequent and extreme natural disasters wrought by climate change. They include 2017 findings that climate change would increase agricultural pollution and nutrient runoff in the Lower Mississippi River Delta, and 2018 research showing that the Southern Plains area that includes Texas is increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Burying reports that contain inconvenient facts is just one way the Trump administration has made it harder for the South’s agricultural sector to grapple with the climate crisis.

ARS spokespeople have maintained that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has never explicitly interfered with the agency or its research partners, but the department’s leadership has set a clear agenda. Just days after President Trump took office, USDA employees began receiving emails discouraging the use of the term “climate change” at all. Perdue, the former governor of Georgia, has a history of making statements hostile to climate science. In 2014, for example, he had an essay published in the conservative National Review in which he criticized “liberals” for connecting extreme weather events to climate change — a connection scientists say is real. As recently as last month, Perdue dismissed climate change in a CNN interview, attributing its effects to “weather patterns.”

The USDA appears to have punished its own employees for refusing to toe the party line on climate. The department’s Economic Research Service (ERS) has acknowledged that the Earth’s temperature is rising as a result of increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. “Climate change will affect crop and livestock yields worldwide,” the ERS website states, “which will lead to changes in food and fiber consumption, prices of agricultural commodities, and farm incomes.”

In May, Perdue announced that ERS headquarters, along with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), would be relocated from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City area, a move that some saw as retaliation for the agency’s scientific stance. After the move was announced, the National Farmers Union released a statement expressing concerns that the USDA was attempting to undermine the integrity of the ERS and NIFA, as well as “diminish the role of science in policymaking.” Indeed, many ERS and NIFA employees have already unionized in an effort to resist relocation, and many are planning to decline the move, which could cripple the agencies’ intellectual strength.

Meanwhile, climate change is already taking a financial toll on the South’s farmers and ranchers, and it’s expected to get worse. For example, a 2013 ERS report found temperatures in the region are already close to optimal for corn production, meaning temperature increases will reduce yields. Warming will have the same effect on soybeans and cotton, also major commodity crops in the region. Livestock are also vulnerable to heat stress, so rising temperatures demand adaptive strategies for their care. And climate change-driven disasters are costing farmers as well; in 2018, for example, Hurricane Michael resulted in crop losses of over $2.5 billion in the state of Georgia alone.

Climate change is also expected to affected rice production in the United States, the world’s fourth-largest rice exporter with production centered in the Mississippi Delta. For two years, USDA worked with University of Washington researchers and other scientists to study the effects of rising carbon dioxide levels on rice, concluding they can result in lower nutrient levels. Days before the University of Washington was slated to announce the findings, the communications director received a call from an ARS staffer stating the agency had decided against a press release and suggested the university do the same. Though the rice article had already gone through a peer-review process, as well as the agency’s own technical and policy review, the staffer claimed senior leaders were concerned “there was not enough data” to support the study’s claims and that other scholars may “question the science.” If current climate change patterns continue, the U.S. rice industry will struggle to remain competitive.

It has long been established that climate change, much like any other global health crisis, will disproportionately affect poor and rural communities. That has important implications for the South, which has eight of the 10 poorest states and where over 56 percent of land is categorized as “rural.” Withholding critical information puts these communities at even greater risk of failing to make the necessary adaptations to withstand weather disasters, sustain industries, or protect vulnerable populations from extreme heat and polluted air and water.

Reduced agricultural yield and increased production costs will also result in higher food costs in the South, the region of the country that already suffers from the highest rates of food insecurity. And it’s not just consumers and farm owners who will be adversely affected. The fourth annual National Climate Assessment determined that the Southeast employs the second highest number of farmworkers per year compared to other regions.

Simply put, the South cannot afford for the USDA to ignore climate change.

Facing South is the online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies, where this article originally appeared, www.southernstudies.org.

This article originally published in the July 15, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Meghan Holmes
Contributing Writer

A new television docu-series produced by and starring New Orleans native Monalisa Johnson called “Prisoners of Hope,” which focuses on working with incarcerated people and their families to heal from the impacts of prison, is now streaming on iOne Digital.

Johnson previously starred in the A&E series “60 Days In,” going undercover in prison to learn about what it’s really like to be behind bars. Both series reflect Johnson’s commitment to better understanding incarceration and encouraging systemic reform of the criminal justice system, something she felt determined to do after her daughter’s arrest and mandatory ten-year sentence at the age of 18.

“I do not justify crime or think people should not be punished, but I think she was over-sentenced and a lot of people are over-sentenced,” Johnson said. “We know people in prison as thieves, murderers, and child molesters, and what we need to remember is that everyone is a human being, with a family and a story. If we don’t treat people in jail like human beings, we can’t expect them to act like human beings when they’re released.”

After her daughter’s imprisonment, Johnson founded an advocacy group called Parents of Incarcerated Children. Producers at A&E heard about her work and invited her to take part in their show, “60 Days In.”

“They asked me to do it, and I talked to my daughter, and she said she wouldn’t wish that on her worst enemy,” Johnson said. “She said the only way she would support me is if I took what I learned and used it to make change.”

Johnson wanted to know what her daughter was experiencing, so she agreed to go on the show.

“No one knows you, and there are no special privileges,” Johnson said. “It was a nightmare. I’m still in therapy three years later. Prison is not rehabilitative in any way, and if you weren’t a criminal before you went in, you will be when you leave.”

After her release, Johnson wrote a book about her experiences and worked to fulfill her daughter’s request that she advocate for reform in the criminal justice system. After a couple of years, as the publicity surrounding her appearance began to diminish, she decided to start work on “Prisoners of Hope.”

“I started working on the show six months before my daughter’s release, and on August 1 she will have been out for sixteen months,” Johnson said. “The show focuses mostly on a similar period of time in the life of an incarcerated person and their family. It’s about reintegrating into society and finding a purpose again for the person released, and also about helping families going through this process and giving them hope.”

The show’s pilot episode focuses on a mother, Carol, and her son, Omar, set to be released from jail after serving a nearly 20-year sentence that began when he was 18 years old.

Carol hadn’t seen her son since he was a boy, and now he is a grown man. She had a tremendous amount of anxiety that had caused her to have strokes, and she hadn’t dealt with the underlying problem. So, we brought in a specialist to diagnose her PTSD and help work through her challenges,” Johnson said.

One of Carol’s primary sources of anxiety was the potential for Omar to reoffend, because he would be released in California, while she lives in Texas. Johnson’s advocacy group got involved and helped Omar to transition from California to Texas after his release through an inter-state compact, something Carol had never heard of.

“He’s in a transitional center now, and she was able to get him out sooner than he was supposed to,” Johnson said. “People need advocates. They need resources. I want to teach people that they don’t have to be afraid.”

The pilot episode of “Prisoners of Hope” is currently available for streaming through iOne Digital, the digital streaming platform for TV network TV One, at www.APlaceforCreators.com. In the spring of next year, the series will be televised on the iOne network.

“It’s about building the backstory of how and why these incarcerated individuals ended up in this situation, and thinking about the families that surround them,” Johnson said. “Making this show has been an exhilarating experience, because I get to bring hope to the table. Life after prison isn’t easy, but every single day can get brighter and brighter.”

This article originally published in the July 15, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Kelly Harris
Contributing Writer

Essence Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary July 5-7 in New Orleans and attracted more than half a million national and international attendees for the Fourth of July weekend for a historic anniversary celebration.

Essence kicked off the weekend with a press conference at Ashé Cultural Arts Center, during which it was announced that the festival would change its official name to the Essence Festival of Culture starting in 2020, to place a more global focus on the festival in future years.

Highlights of this year’s festival included First Lady Michelle Obama in a conversation on the main stage with Gayle King in a sold-out Superdome; an all-new Essence After Dark Series, featuring a series of underground concerts and comedy shows; and seven of the 2020 presidential candidates discussing their platforms, including Kamala Harris, Corey Booker and Senator Elizabeth Warren.

This year’s festival expanded its programming far beyond the Morial Convention Center and Superdome.

On July 4, locals and tourists enjoyed a free Party in the Park that featured rapper Common, Tonya Boyd-Cannon, Bamboula 2000 and more. Festival attendees did more walking around the CBD to venues such as Orpheum Theater and Republic NOLA. The After Dark events series offered nightly entertainment options that ranged from a reggae party to a comedy show. One major addition to the Essence Festival was the infusion of artists from the Diaspora and Caribbean performing in the Super Lounge and other off-site Essence Fest events.

But even with the addition of the various options of entertainment around the city, the nightly concerts at the Superdome were still a big attraction.

Friday night featured a tribute to Prince by members of New Power Generation; R&B singer and New Orleans native Ledisi lead tributes to Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. The audience was treated to a guest appearance by the Philly diva (LaBelle) and a moment of spontaneous singing. Former New Edition members Ronnie Bobby, Ricky and Mike, now known as “RBRM,” rocked the Dome with classic hits such as “Poison” and “Every Little Step.” Missy Elliot shut down the night with an energetic performance of her greatest hits.

Saturday night was anchored by former First Lady Michelle Obama’s appearance. New sensation H.E.R. showcased her vocals and musicianship by playing various instruments. Mary J. Blige ended the night with a celebration of the 25th anniversary of her album, “My Life.”

After 15 consecutive years of Essence Festival performances, Frankie Beverly took what many believe was his final Essence Fest bow on Sunday. Beverly, donned in his signature white, told the audience, “Thank you. Thank. You. I don’t wanna cry, so let’s play some music, ok?” Prior to his performance, Beverly was given a key to the City of New Orleans.

In addition to the concerts, comedy shows and parties, some finished out the festival weekend after being highlighted by Essence and other organizations for their service, missions and achievements.

The inaugural Girls United Giving Challenge, a community-wide, four-day online giving event held during the festival weekend benefiting eight nonprofit organizations that lift up young girls in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana. The giving challenge was inspired by ESSENCE Girls United, a year-long mentorship program and interactive digital/social content hub designed to convey “the core principles of leadership and self-love.”

The eight organizations benefitting from the inaugural giving challenge are BR Grow Girls and O.M.G. Girlz in Baton Rouge, and Beautiful Foundation, Orchid Society, Pink House, Project Butterfly; St. Katherine Drexel Prep; and St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans.

Los Angeles, California-based apparel company NYDJ and the Jane Club partnered to introduce and present a scholarship program during this year’s festival. Partnered to empower and support women, especially those in marginalized communities.

The scholarship was announced during the Welcome New Orleans Dinner hosted in honor of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, the city’s first female mayor. Cantrell spoke about her mission to address issues New Orleans faces regarding youth, family and motherhood.

The scholarship, called the Women of Tomorrow Scholarship, was established to recognize outstanding young women enrolled in college who have achieved positive academic records and demonstrated the qualities that are consistent with NYDJ’s values.
Cleopatra Singleton, a rising junior at Xavier University majoring in political science, was the recipient of the inaugural scholarship. Singleton is hoping to study abroad with one of her political science classes.

Essence Festival also acknowledged the recent passing of Leah Chase, who was recognized on the main stage with a video tribute, and an award which was accepted on stage by the Chase family.

This article originally published in the July 15, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Kelly Harris
Contributing Writer

The highly anticipated conversation with former First Lady Michelle Obama at Essence Festival was a historic event for Essence Communications and the City of New Orleans. CBS This Morning anchor Gayle King and the former First Lady sat in conversation on the Essence Festival main stage and did not disappoint the crowd.

The conversation between the two women was staged with plush furniture and montage videos of Mrs. Obama and the former first family during their years in the White House.

Obama’s visit was in part to celebrate the success of her book, “Becoming,” and the 25th anniversary of the Essence Festival.

Obama spoke candidly about her career, family and life, including her first impression of Barack Obama, balancing marriage, motherhood and life in the spotlight.

“I grew up on the Southside of Chicago with Robinsons, Smiths and Joneses. I didn’t know no Barack Obama,” Obama said, and even went on to admit that she was a little skeptical of white people’s recommendations that she should meet him. “But then I hear that Barack Obama voice on the phone and I was like, ‘Oh,’” she said, as the crowd joined her in laughter.

As she spoke on the importance of balance as a wife and mother, Obama implored women in the audience to have a self-care practice to take care of their minds, bodies and spirits because the wellness of a household depends on its woman.

“Men need to talk more. Get you some friends,” she told the men in the audience when asked about her and Barack Obama’s marriage-counseling journey. “We can’t be role models and not tell people the truth about life and relationships. Marriage is work,” Obama said.

After eight years in the White House, Obama says she looks back with gratitude that they were able to endure punches from the world and stay the course as public servants and as a family.

When asked if the Obamas are living their best lives, Michelle Obama, replied, “We sleep well at night, but no, we are not living our best lives, until all of us are living our best lives.”

This article originally published in the July 15, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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BlackNews.com — David Miller knows only eighteen percent of Black fourth graders read proficiently. Likewise, he’s aware that it’s increasingly difficult to find quality children’s books by authors of color.

Miller is counting on his newest work, “Gabe & His Green Thumb,” to be the first of many children’s books to buck those trends.

A husband, father of three, writer and social entrepreneur, Miller has published a fresh, new children’s book about Gabe Gresham, a typical kid who loves reading comic books and playing with his friends after school.

One day Gabe’s life is changed forever while he’s working in his family’s garden.

Written for second graders and up, “Gabe & His Green Thumb” is about a boy who discovers the power of growing food. The book, complete with bright, bold illustrations, takes kids on Gabe’s journey as he transforms from a shy kid to an overnight celebrity because of his ability to raise championship-sized vegetables.

Kids of all ages will be amazed by Gabe’s “magical” thumb, his superpowers and the way he remains humble while handling his newfound success.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2015 national reading assessment, only eighteen percent of Black fourth graders read proficiently, staggering statistics that Miller says underscore the need for getting Black students excited about reading early and often.

“We simply must find ways to entice our children to read because we’re losing a generation of kids to the streets and the violence it spawns,” Miller said. “While I’m certainly not proffering that reading books is a panacea to all of our problems, I am suggesting that improving the outcomes for children of color can begin with something as simple as finding ways to engage them in the power of reading books that interest them.” Miller previously authored two children’s books Miller has authored two children’s books, “Khalil’s Way” and “The Green Family Farm.” His works have been featured on CNN, PBS and NPR and in the BBC Magazine, The Baltimore Sun, The Huffington Post and in a variety of other publications.

Miller is a Baltimore native who has a B.A. in political science from the University of Baltimore and a master of science in education from Goucher College. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Social Work at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

A former teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools, Miller is widely known for designing “Dare to Be King: What if the Prince Lives?” The survival workbook for African-American males features a fifty-two week curriculum designed to teach adolescent males how to survive and thrive in toxic environments.

This article originally published in the July 15, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Cara Anthony
Contributing Writer

(Special from khn.org) — After a health insurance change forced Bernard Macon to cut ties with his Black doctor, he struggled to find another African-American physician online. Then, he realized two health advocates were hiding in plain sight.

At a nearby drugstore here in the suburbs outside of St. Louis, a pair of pharmacists became the unexpected allies of Macon and his wife, Brandy. Much like the Macons, the pharmacists were energetic young parents who were married — and unapologetically Black.

Vincent and Lekeisha Williams, owners of LV Health and Wellness Pharmacy, didn’t hesitate to help when Brandy had a hard time getting the medicine she needed before and after sinus surgery last year. The Williamses made calls when Brandy, a physician assistant who has worked in the medical field for 15 years, didn’t feel heard by her doctor’s office.

“They completely went above and beyond,” said Bernard Macon, 36, a computer programmer and father of two. “They turned what could have been a bad experience into a good experience.”

Now more than ever, the Macons are betting on Black medical professionals to give their family better care. The Macon children see a Black pediatrician. A Black dentist takes care of their teeth. Brandy Macon relies on a Black gynecologist. And now the two Black pharmacists fill the gap for Bernard Macon while he searches for a primary care doctor in his network, giving him trusted confidants that chain pharmacies likely wouldn’t.

Black Americans continue to face persistent health care disparities. Compared with their white counterparts, Black men and women are more likely to die of heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza, pneumonia, diabetes and AIDS, according to the Office of Minority Health.

But medical providers who give patients culturally competent care — the act of acknowledging a patient’s heritage, beliefs and values during treatment — often see improved patient outcomes, according to multiple studies. Part of it is trust and understanding, and part of it can be more nuanced knowledge of the medical conditions that may be more prevalent in those populations.

For patients, finding a way to identify with their pharmacist can pay off big time. Cutting pills in half, skipping doses or not taking medication altogether can be damaging to one’s health — even deadly. And many patients see their pharmacists monthly, far more often than annual visits to their medical doctors, creating more opportunities for supportive care.

That’s why some Black pharmacists are finding ways to connect with customers in and outside of their stores. Inspirational music, counseling, accessibility and transparency have turned some minority-owned pharmacies into hubs for culturally competent care.

“We understand the community because we are a part of the community,” Lekeisha Williams said. “We are visible in our area doing outreach, attending events and promoting health and wellness.”

To be sure, such care is not just relevant to African Americans. But mistrust of the medical profession is especially a hurdle to overcome when treating Black Americans.

Many are still shaken by the history of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were used in research worldwide without her family’s knowledge; the Tuskegee Project, which failed to treat Black men with syphilis; and other projects that used African Americans unethically for research.

Filling More Than Prescriptions

At Black-owned Premier Pharmacy and Wellness Center near Grier Heights, a historically Black neighborhood in Charlotte, N.C., the playlist is almost as important as the acute care clinic attached to the drugstore. Owner Martez Prince watches his customers shimmy down the aisles as they make their way through the store listening to Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Kirk Franklin, Whitney Houston and other Black artists.

Prince said the music helps him in his goal of making health care more accessible and providing medical advice patients can trust.

In rural Georgia, Teresa Mitchell, a Black woman with 25 years of pharmacy experience, connects her customers with home health aides, shows them how to access insurance services online and even makes house calls. Her Total Care Pharmacy is the only health care provider in Baconton, where roughly half the town’s 900 residents are Black.

“We do more than just dispense,” Mitchell said.

Iradean Bradley, 72, became a customer soon after Total Care Pharmacy opened in 2016. She struggled to pick up prescriptions before Mitchell came to town.

“It was so hectic because I didn’t have transportation of my own,” Bradley said. “It’s so convenient for us older people, who have to pay someone to go out of town and get our medicine.”

Lakesha M. Butler, president of the National Pharmaceutical Association, advocates for such culturally competent care through the professional organization representing minorities in the pharmacy industry and studies it in her academic work at the Edwardsville campus of Southern Illinois University. She also feels its impact directly, she said, when she sees patients at clinics two days a week in St. Charles, Mo., and East St. Louis, Ill.

“It’s just amazing to me when I’m practicing in a clinic setting and an African-American patient sees me,” Butler said. “It’s a pure joy that comes over their face, a sigh of relief. It’s like ‘OK, I’m glad that you’re here because I can be honest with you and I know you will be honest with me.’”

She often finds herself educating her Black patients about diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other common conditions.

“Unfortunately, there’s still a lack of knowledge in those areas,” Butler said. “That’s why those conditions can be so prevalent.”

Avoiding Medical Microaggressions

For Macon, his experiences with medical professionals of backgrounds different from his own left him repeatedly disappointed and hesitant to open up.

After his wife had a miscarriage, Macon said, the couple didn’t receive the compassion they longed for while grieving the loss. A few years later, a bad experience with their children’s pediatrician when their oldest child had a painful ear infection sparked a move to a different provider.

“My daughter needed attention right away, but we couldn’t get through to anybody,” Macon recalled. “That’s when my wife said, ‘We aren’t doing this anymore!’”

Today, Macon’s idea of good health care isn’t colorblind. If a doctor can’t provide empathetic and expert treatment, he’s ready to move, even if a replacement is hard to find.

Kimberly Wilson, 31, will soon launch an app for consumers like Macon who are seeking culturally competent care. Therapists, doulas, dentists, specialists and even pharmacists of color will be invited to list their services on HUED. Beta testing is expected to start this summer in New York City and Washington, D.C., and the app will be free for consumers.

“Black Americans are more conscious of their health from a lot of different perspectives,” Wilson said. “We’ve begun to put ourselves forward.”

But even after the introduction of HUED, such health care could be hard to find. While about 13 percent of the U.S. population is Black, only about six percent of the country’s doctors and surgeons are Black, according to Data USA. Black pharmacists make up about seven percent of the professionals in their field, and, though the demand is high, Black students accounted for about nine percent of all students enrolled in pharmacy school in 2018.

For Macon, though, the Williamses’ LV Health and Wellness Pharmacy in Shiloh provides some of the support he has been seeking.

“I still remember the very first day I went there. It was almost like a barbershop feel,” Macon said, likening it to the community hubs where customers can chitchat about sports, family and faith while getting their hair cut. “I could relate to who was behind the counter.”

This story also ran on NBC News.

This article originally published in the July 15, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Marta Jewson
The Lens

The Orleans Parish school district has given Mary D. Coghill Charter School its most severe warning and has tipped off several governmental oversight agencies about its concerns.

In a warning letter sent in late June detailing financial management concerns and possible charter board overreach, a district official wrote that the district’s “observations will also be shared with Louisiana Legislative Auditor, Orleans Parish District Attorney, and the Louisiana Board of Ethics.”

Senior Equity and Accountability Officer Kelli Peterson’s three-page letter details potentially inappropriate reimbursements to a board member, a computer purchase using federal funding that violated board policy, teacher appreciation day expenses of $8,709 and violations of district policy regarding alcohol consumption.

Orleans schools’ Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. sent a letter detailing the financial matters to Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera at the end of June.

Coghill is a D-rated charter school with about 600 students located on the 4600 block of Mirabeau Avenue. The school’s charter contract is up for renewal in December.

Board overreach

The Better Choice Foundation, the nonprofit that operates Coghill, “has failed to follow financial procedures regarding reimbursements,” Peterson wrote. Board member Eric Jones, she wrote, received reimbursements of about $600 without proper supporting documentation.

That could be a violation of the Louisiana Code of Governmental Ethics, she wrote. Charter school board members are subject to those rules.

The board’s involvement in the school appears to extend beyond appropriate boundaries. Generally, charter boards hire the school’s top employee, approve a balanced budget, and hold monthly meetings to assess the organization, but are not involved in day-to-day decisions at the school level.

However, the district “has previously cited Better Choice Foundation regarding its board members involvement in daily activities at the school,” Peterson wrote. The board is tasked with hiring a CEO, and “does not hire all the school staff,” she wrote.

The school’s website currently lists multiple management vacancies, including “head of school,” principal, chief financial officer, director of operations and data manager.

At a board meeting last month, the charter group ratified a purchase of four computers for $5,892 using federal funding. The district believes the charter board was in violation of its own policies.

“At the time the computers were purchased, there was no board approval, which seems to be required for purchases in excess of $5,000,” Peterson wrote.

Better Choice Foundation board president Audrey Woods did not respond to a request for comment.

Teacher Appreciation Day

Nearly $9,000 in expenses related to Teacher Appreciation Day has also caught the eye of district officials. Purchases included $2,902 for catering, $2,000 in gift cards and $260 for alcohol, according to the district.

Peterson said the charter board “may be in violation of the Louisiana Constitution in that the costs associated with Teacher Appreciation Day could constitute an unconstitutional donation.” She noted the gift cards could violate state ethics law if they were considered a gift “received by a public employee for their regular employment.”

Additionally, Peterson wrote that the school “violated OPSB Policy KF as it relates to alcohol consumption on school board property.” The policy requires a written request to serve alcohol.

“School Board policy also prohibits its employees from consuming alcohol during the school day,” Peterson wrote. “Better Choice Foundation should have similar prohibitions.”

In response to the allegations, the charter board must provide information on financial policies, the source of the funds used on Teacher Appreciation Day and additional documentation supporting the reimbursements to board member Jones. That information was due Friday.

If Better Choice Foundation can’t justify the board member reimbursements, Peterson wrote, the charter group “shall submit a written explanation of how these funds were paid back to them by Dr. Jones.”

The district is also requiring each charter board member attend eight hours of training related to charter board governance this fall.

The above article originally appeared in The Lens on its website (www.thelensnola.org). The Louisiana Weekly enjoys a partnership with The Lens.

This article originally published in the July 15, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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By Stacy M. Brown
Contributing Writer

(NNPA Newswire) — It’s likely that identifying as a Republican today isn’t as easy as it once was, particularly with President Donald Trump’s policies that have included separating children from parents; the administration’s escalating racial rhetoric; and a special counsel report that strongly suggests the nation’s commander-in-chief committed crimes that may not just end with obstruction of justice.

And, as tough as it is for White GOP members to identify with the party (See: Michigan Rep. Justin Amash’s declaring his independence this month and leaving the party) African-American Republicans may have an even more difficult task of letting people know where they stand.

MICHAEL STEELE

In fact, prominent Republicans like South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Telly Lovelace, who once was responsible for African-American outreach, press strategy and field engagement for the Republican National Committee, nixed requests by the NNPA Newswire to detail life as a Black Republican.

We also reached out to others without success including Herman Caine, Condoleezza Rice, Dr. Ben Carson, and Armstrong Williams.

Perhaps they weren’t able to articulate what former RNC Chair Michael Steele could – “I mean, you know, people don’t ask Democrats that question when they had their crazy left-wingers out there,” Steele said.

“But, you know in any political climate there are underlying arguments for being reasonable and in my view, which is why I remain a Republican, is that despite Donald Trump, there’s still a balance and there’s still underlying arguments for Republicanism that are still valid,” Steele said.

“The principles are still valid,” he said before offering a reminder of what he told a Washington Post reporter in 2018.

“You invite me over to a nice dinner and I come to your home. And during the course of that evening, I start breaking your china. I start slicing your drapes, tearing up your carpet, putting holes in your walls.

“So, at that point, do you leave, or do you kick my ass out? You’re going to kick me out. That’s where I am. I’m not leaving. This is my house.

“I know I gotta repair the drapes and patch up the holes in the walls and replace the carpet. But your ass will be gone and that’s the goal,” Steele said.

Shekinah Monee, of Perfect Vision PR Company, said as a Republican in the current climate it’s often difficult when she discusses her views to fellow African Americans who don’t favor her party.

“My mother blames my boyfriend for my party change, although my views have never changed,” Monee told NNPA Newswire.

“I had to reevaluate my views and why I was with a [Democratic] party that did not support me. While I have always been conservative, I was told as a Black woman I must be a Democrat. I attempted to become a Republican several times, but the Board of Election kept keeping me as a Democrat. I finally became a Republican in 2019,” Monee said.

“I think that the African-American community truly needs to read and know their history. I think that a lot of people dislike a person and let it speak for the party,” she said.

“There is no consideration taken about the entire picture. Also, we must hold everyone to the same standards,” Monee continued.

Having worked in Republican politics for 15 years and being the head of the only Black GOP political campaign consulting firm, Richard S. Holt said his experience shows that having an all-white administration makes many African Americans believe that the party is racist.

“My friends and family understand this narrative and how it works in terms of the politics of race,” Holt said.

“My father was very conservative and hated the Democrats who he saw as holding back Black progress. As I grew up, I began to get a better understanding of his ideas,” said Holt, whose father was the first in his family to get a college degree and the first Black chemist to graduate from his college,” he said.

“I was taught a very ‘up by the bootstraps’ idea that we had to be smarter, be wiser, and work harder than whites to get ahead,” Holt said.

“Once I read the book, ‘Conscience of a Conservative,’ in college back in 1999, I was sold on conservatism overall,” he said.

Holt did say he disagreed with the author’s ideas on the Civil Rights Act, but the overall philosophy of conservatism just made the most sense for the kind of America he wanted to live in.

Jonathan Farley, whose father is a native of Guyana who holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, and his mother who is Jamaican and holds a Ph.D. in American history, said he’s an independent who voted Republican in the 2018 midterm elections.

“I decided to do that because of the Democratic Party’s support for alternative lifestyle groups and the party’s support for women who make false allegations against men like the #MeToo movement,” Farley said.

Despite his conversion, Farley said he doesn’t believe African Americans as a whole will ever be convinced that the Republican party has the community’s best interest in mind.

“Republicans should make it clear that the Democratic party supports anti-Christian efforts like teaching kindergarteners about transsexuals and Republicans should stop taking the side of neo-Confederate groups and the party should publicly state that Confederate statues need to be removed,” Farley said.

This article originally published in the July 15, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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